WELLINGTON—A cargo vessel carrying oil and other substances that is stranded off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island is continuing to spill oil and might break apart.
Prime Minister John Key, who traveled to the area, told local media Wednesday that stress fractures have been identified on the ship, the Rena, and that its disintegration cannot be ruled out.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Nick Smith said some 1,300 tons of heavy oil remain on the vessel and every effort is being made to contain it. He said the oil posed a far bigger environmental risk than anything else the vessel is carrying.
“If the ship breaks apart and those stern tanks release the…oil, that is when this thing will get even worse,” he said.
Approximately 70 containers out of a total of 1,368 have fallen off the ship so far, and it is highly likely more will be lost due to the current severe weather conditions and the vessel’s heavy list, Maritime New Zealand said Wednesday. Eleven of the containers are filled with hazardous substances but those are still on board, it added.
Navigational warnings have been issued to mariners and major ships have been rerouted, the maritime authority said. In addition, the captain of the stranded vessel has been arrested and charged “for operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk.”
The Rena struck the Astrolabe Reef Oct. 5 on its way to Tauranga on the North Island, and oil leaks were detected soon after. Salvagers moved in the following day and began pumping oil to a bunker barge late Sunday, but this operation has been hampered by bad weather. The Rena’s remaining crew of 24 were evacuated early Tuesday.
In the ship’s cargo are four containers of ferrosilicon, a solid matter that can give off hydrogen and cause a fire risk if it comes into contact with water. New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra Co-Operative Group also confirmed it had 89 containers of “dry product” on board.
Mr. Smith said the incident was the country’s worst environmental maritime disaster and the government would seek full compensation from the owners of the Rena, Costamare Inc.
“The government will be using the full force of the law to ensure the maximum level of recovery from those who are responsible,” he said.
– By Rebecca Howard, (c) 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.